Crazy But True

by

08/09/2009

East 72nd Street cul de sac, New York, NY 10021

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

At 4 a.m. on a Saturday night in May, I was suddenly trapped in my own bedroom with no likely route to freedom.

I had just turned out the light and pulled the covers when a strong draft slammed the bedroom door shut. This had happened before, but the door had never locked. The problem with my bedroom door (as I would discover later comparing it to the bathroom door) was that the doorknob was installed backwards, with the lock on the outside. So when the push-button lock in the center of the outer knob clicked firmly into place, I was alone and in trouble.

I got out of bed, turned on the light, and tried the door. On my side there was only a keyhole, and of course I had no key.

“No!” I shouted. “This can’t be real.” Then, “This is real.” I was quiet.

I live in a one-bedroom apartment on the 42nd floor of a building by the East River. From my perch I can see a myriad of windows, the gables of the Dakota, and the tower of the Carlyle Hotel. There are tug-boats moving barges along the river and planes taking off from LaGuardia. Nearby are trees in John Jay Park and far away are the wires of the George Washington Bridge.

My building happens to be the one that Cory Lidle’s plane crashed into (two floors below my apartment, although I wasn’t yet living in it). When I originally moved in—I lived for two years in another apartment before moving into mine mid-February—I thought, What more could happen here? The worst is over for this place.

Now I stood at the door and wondered if I shouldn’t get back into bed. Surely I could be more productive with some sleep.

No. Take stock, take stock. Essentials. I looked around the room. Liquid: Cup and a half of water. Latrine: Two tissues, plenty of pillowcases, the Danish planter, and, if need be, the cover to the portable typewriter. Food: None. Fresh air: the left-hand window slides opens two inches.

By design I keep no telephone in the bedroom. I adopted the idea after staying at an apartment where the phones were kept in the “social” rooms. It’s the right idea, I think: the bedroom is a sanctuary (John Donne anyone?) for sleep and other personal activities in the flesh. I keep no computer for the same reason (but of course the electric typewriter is allowed).

The good news, at least for my morale, was that I keep one of my two collage boxes under the dresser. It contains glues, ribbon, tweezers, paint markers, stickers, hole punchers, nails, and other items useful for making paper art. I also keep my collection of postcards in a box under there. Between the boxes and my typewriters, I didn’t feel entirely alone.

I tried picking the lock with a large paper clip, a small paper clip, a stitch remover, and an awl. I considered removing the door hinges. I considered breaking into the door with the ironing board, my lacrosse stick, and a leg of the bed frame.

I attempted to sleep. My legs twitched. I had to pee—again. I thought: yoga. I remained in bed and decided to work on a solution when it was lighter. As usual, roof lights from that Solow building across the street were having their nightly klatch with the lights from the Miraval up the same block, but that’s not the kind of light I needed.

My family was to meet for dinner that evening, at 7 o’ clock. Often my parents cancel. If they did, I would be more stuck than if they didn’t. If they didn’t cancel, I figured they’d come looking for me by 9:30 or so.

I felt in the covers for my stuffed mushroom. It’s wool and washable. I held the cap.

Then I turned on the light. I noticed, as I so often do, my photo of Helen Frankenthaler, excised from The Brooklyn Rail. She is kneeling on the floor before a large canvas, and she is painting.

I took off my nightgown and changed into my favorite corduroys (the ones with paint marks, from when I painted my bookshelves) and a long-sleeved top. I did some yoga.

After that I crouched at the collage box, found a length of raffia, and sat against the door playing cat’s cradle while waiting for the sun to come up.

I thought about a man I know. He wouldn’t care. For him to express spontaneous concern about my being locked in a room I would need to give him several days’ notice.

Around 5:30 a.m., I put on my gray flats, took down the joss papers curtain (I ad-lib shades), wrote large S.O.S. messages on book boards, and stacked them face-out in the right-hand window. Out the narrow strip of air provided by the left-hand window, I lowered signage in my father’s old slouchy overnight bag—with the aid of two leather belts and a fitted sheet—to what I hoped was at least a portion of the 41st floor bedroom window. I tied the end of the sheet around my gooseneck lamp and added a blue and a red Theraband for extra visibility.

I wondered if I shouldn’t take this sealed box of time to sit down and do some work. My little pile includes early drafts pages of my play Sunday Drivers, late draft pages, carbon paper copies, pages of random dialogue, pages about the time I was asleep, TV show pitches, and unsent letters. I stared at the pile of pages.

Now: How could I talk to people on the street without dropping message-wrapped objects that could hurt somebody? Clearly: Paper airplanes—and they would be functional because I had three boxes of veneer pins and copper tacks in the collage box. Tiny nails would steady and weight the noses, important on what I estimated to be a four-hundred-and-something–foot descent.

The sky was light now; it was also gray. A light rain was falling. I considered turning on the radio for a weather report and then decided against it. I would simply send planes until the rain told me otherwise. I planned to send five hundred, since I could also convert paper from my files (the cabinets stand beside the bed). It wasn’t a question of if I would get out, it was only a question of when.

The first plane I sailed was a page from Sunday Drivers, on printer paper. Who knows where it landed.

Next sheet: unused (unecological) plain typing paper—much too light. No doubt it wafted to where hyena laughter disappears. In any case, it felt more responsible to switch back to used paper.

I also decided that writing HELP in thick black letters across the body of each plane would be more visible than writing it twice along each wing near the contact information.

Each plane took the wind differently. One ran large circles (Don’t land on that building!) before coasting into the East River. Another landed at the corner of 72nd and York (Look down! Look down!). A woman walked past. (She didn’t notice?)

Maybe I needed to vary the wording. I imagined what headline writers at The New York Post would do.

WOMAN LOCKED IN ROOM. HELP was poised to descend, a little before 8:00 a.m., when I heard the metallic clack of the front door dead bolt. It was Jonathan, the concierge with the Irish brogue. He looked around my bedroom before placing the Sunday Times in my arms. I thanked him.

He also handed me a damp plane. It was a scene from my play, and was the only plane I’d made with CRAZY BUT TRUE written in the corner of a tail-wing.

“A man across the street found this,” Jonathan said. “You should keep that.” Then he told me to go back to sleep.

 

Elizabeth Manus is a writer and sometime background actor living in Manhattan. Her most current blog is The Ys Have It.

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